GamesArt Interview Tommy Tordsson Björk

Tommy Tordsson Björk aus Uppsala, Schweden – ist Narrative Designer bei MachineGames Studios. Im November 2010 wurde das schwedischen Entwicklungsstudios gegründet, dass sich aus großen Teilen aus dem ursprünglichen Team der Starbreeze Studios Stockholm zusammensetzt. Tommy’s letztes Projekt als Narrative Designer war der Titel: Wolfenstein: The New Order (unser GamesArt Test zu finden HIER). Vorher arbeitete er an Chronicles of Riddick und The Darkness. Für hat er sich nun etwas Zeit genommen und steht uns im Interview Rede und Antwort.

Hi Tommy. Thank you so much for your time to chat with GamesArt. First of all, an essential question we always like to ask: What elements make video games to a special art form? Or why do you think should video games be considered an art form at all?

I was studying psychology at that time at the university when I decided to become a games writer. That’s 16 years ago now. As a kid, I used to play pen-and-paper role-playing games with my friends. I wasn’t a big video-game player. I liked playing videogames because I liked the interactive aspect of it. But story-wise it couldn’t really match up to the experiences we had playing table-top role-playing games.

Then I played Half-Life and my mind was just blown. It felt to me like I was playing through a thriller. It had a
movie-like quality without being a movie. I was part of an unfolding story, completely immersed in its world. That’s when I made the decision to pursue a career in the games industry. I felt there was so much more to explore in the realm of storytelling for videogames and that there was something revolutionary going on and I wanted to be part of that revolution.

Half-Life sort of sums up what makes video games so special as an art form for me disregarding the element of story – the way it can place you in another world and make you feel like you are a part of it.

How important is the role of a narrative designer in the development process? What kind of responsibili-ties has a narrative designer?

I guess it depends on the studio, but here at MachineGames, story is equally as important as gameplay which means that my work begins at the very start of production. Mainly, you could say my responsibilities are to be the guardian of the story (together with our Creative Director, Jens Matthies), to write cutscenes and scripted in-game events, incidental and ambient dialogue and beyond that try to make the world come alive through envi-ronmental storytelling which is the story that can be told through environmental art. It’s about telling the story and about shaping the game world into a space that is believable and immersive and enhances the main nar-rative.

You work as a narrative designer at Machine Games Studios. Before Wolfenstein The New Order, you were responsible for the story behind the characters from Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. Did those previous works help in creating the personality and background story of the character of the terrific Ms. Engels?

The work that you produce at any given moment is of course always a culmination of both the successes and the failures of your previous work. It’s difficult to analyze exactly how my previous work affects my writing today since it’s such an elusive process. One thing I’ve learnt from previous production is to never underestimate the value of research when developing backstories for characters. There are many benefits of doing research. It makes your work feel more authentic and believable. It widens your world view and can give you fresh perspectives on things. It’s also very inspirational. I often find that the writing process flows smoother for a while after I’ve researched something.

Regarding the character of Frau Engel I guess there are some similarities with Gale Revas, the main antagonist from Assault on Dark Athena. Revas was this bounty hunter and slave trader who shares a sort of apathy towards human suffering with Frau Engel. People are just toys to them or pawns they can use in their pursuit of power. They would probably not get along very well if you put the two in a room together.

Why are good background stories of characters so important in video games?

I don’t know if it’s more important in games than in other storytelling forms. If you want to create a well-rounded and interesting personality for your character then you need to give him or her a proper background that in-forms their actions and behavior. It makes the writing of scenes much easier if you have prepared all that stuff beforehand. It also gives you material that can be used for other stuff, such as creating diaries, news articles or letters which players can find that can give them deeper insights into the game’s backstory.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your character (back-)stories from? From personal experiences, or perhaps directly from the games (e.g. by looking at some of the game’s concecpt-arts, etc.) for which you shape the lives and story of the characters?

It’s a mixture of a lot of inspirational sources. Sometimes, I draw from my own experiences or from people I know. Music is another big inspiration for me. Music is especially good for emotional inspiration, setting the mood for your writing rather than inspiring specific actions or dialogue (depending on the genre). I usually start out by looking for these inspirational triggers to set things rolling. I try to keep my sources varied and fresh.

There are a lot of developers out there trying out some cool new things in videogame storytelling and that’s of course a big inspiration, but at the same time we want to break new ground ourselves too so you always want to keep that balance between what’s tried and proven, and what can we do to shake things up.

To design a plausible backstory for a video game character is part of your work, but what other kinds of background information, that lets the virtual world come alive, do you and your team create for video games such as Wolfenstein The New Order.

Well, especially for Wolfenstein, we put a lot of work into creating an interesting and plausible alternate history. Of course, we didn’t want to just deliver this backstory to the player in the game’s manual, so we delivered bits and pieces of it through a mixture of storytelling elements such as dialogue between characters, newspaper clippings and letters that players could pick up and read, and in the descriptions of concept art and character models that were unlocked during playthroughs. All those elements combined meant we could give players the sense of being a world that was alive and that was believable without having to overwhelm them by dumping a huge chunk of information on their heads.

Due to the everlasting debate about the lack of strong and well-written female characters in video games: What do you think is the reason for the masculine dominance and to what extent does the design of a fe-male protagonist differ to a male main-character, particularly in relation to the narrative design?

Well, the feeling I get is that some publishers falsely believe female lead characters don’t sell and that they have to „cater“ to a male-dominated audience. I don’t think this is true and I think there’s data to back me up that women make up somewhere around 40 % of the people who play games. And even if those numbers weren’t true I don’t think games with female lead characters sell less. I believe players want to play interesting charac-ters they can sympathize with (not identify with), no matter what their gender is (if the character even has a gender). I have so far, unfortunately, not had the chance to write a game with a female lead character, but if I did I would approach it exactly the same way as when I write a game with a male lead character: by writing them as human beings.

Can you name a favorite game that — from the perspective of a narrative designer — offers incredible good characters and well-written background stories. Why this game?

One of the games that I always come back to when it comes to shining examples of storytelling in games is Planescape Torment. For those unfamiliar with this little gem, it’s an RPG set in the Dungeons & Dragons uni-verse with the same name. It’s about an immortal being called „The Nameless One“ who every time he’s killed wakes up back in the same mortuary over and over, sometimes forgetting everything that’s happened before. The only clues he has are these tattoos scribbled on his body. Death in this game is used for storytelling pur-poses – dying is not just reloading last save. Instead, it actually serves a purpose of advancing the story. On top of this you have an interesting set of supporting characters following you along on the adventure, a novel-sized story to experience that is complex and very intelligent and which manages to avoid many of the tired tropes of fantasy role-playing games. Just the fact that there’s a location you visit called „The Brothel of Slating Intellec-tual Lust“ where patrons pay those who work there to engage in stimulating intelligent conversations tells you a lot about the inventiveness of Planescape Torment’s story and the design of its world.

I played Planescape Torment shortly after Half-Life and it just added fuel to the fire of my ambitions to get into the games industry. I have yet to play another RPG that has topped that experience when it comes to video-game storytelling.

Autor: Davis Schrapel

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